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Pivot Pointe
December 27, 2023

Career Transition With Gavin McCaig

Director of Business Operations for London Vocational Ballet School

Gavin is the Director of Business Operations for London Vocational Ballet School and oversees the running and direction of the school and charity. Previously, Gavin was a Junior Soloist with Northern Ballet. His decade-long, varied performance career included performances on some of the biggest stages in the UK, including The Royal Opera House Main Stage and Sadler's Wells. During his career he performed works by David Nixon OBE, Christopher Hampson, Sir Kenneth MacMillan, Kenneth Tindall, Cathy Marston, Jean Christophe-Maillot, Stina Quagebeur, Jonathan Watkins, Daniel de Andrade and Drew McOnie. Gavin’s choreographic and directorial work for stage and screen has gained critical acclaim and he now works across the sector as a leader and choreographer whilst engaging with organisations at board level. Gavin is a proud trustee of Yorkshire Dance and Chairs their Finance and HR Subcommittee.

Courtesy of Gavin McCaig

At which point in your impressive nine-year professional journey did you decide it was time to pivot your career?

Gavin McCaig: Interestingly, I've always had a passion for writing, even as a child when I decided I wanted to dance. I probably would have wanted to be an English teacher if I hadn't been so successful in getting into an upper school. As I was training in my lower school, I started writing and discovered I had interests outside of dancing, like choreographing and organizing productions.

Before I started at the English National Ballet School, I began writing for the late Dancing Times, Britain's leading dance monthly. The editor, Jon Gray, gave me a platform to write and contribute alongside regular, more established contributors from different demographics. People often questioned why I was training to be a dancer while also writing. I always responded that I liked both and could do both. My interests expanded into choreography and dance on screen, which I explored in my dissertation during my graduate year at ENBS.

After joining a professional company straight out of school, which was a fantastic opportunity, I continued to explore my other interests. I was intrigued about managing a team of people and creating something artistic, be it choreography, a short film, an event, or a talk. I've always been passionate about the world of dance and the arts. I've seen its power in elite settings, like national dance companies but also in community settings with workshops and classes for young people and adults. I made sure to seize any opportunity that arose to engage with those interests further. I wrote opinion pieces for Dancing Times and features on choreographers and works being staged. I loved the idea of being a bigger part of the conversation and the decision-making process in the industry. I started thinking about going into arts leadership.

I joined the Dancer's Committee for the company, took courses outside of being a dancer, and got involved with the company's outreach programmes. I led a free boys workshop day at the company and got involved with a project called The Ballet Retreat for adult dancers. Looking back, I so admired my then Artistic Director, David Nixon, who was an incredible leader. He supported me by giving me commissions for my choreography and letting me get involved with the academy and the learning department. When you start to explore your potential, people around you start to notice and they gravitate towards that.

We all possess unique gifts within us. It's crucial to have the confidence and belief to tap into, and share, these gifts.

Did you leverage any career transition support to streamline your career change?

Gavin: Yes, midway through my career, DCD launched a career exploration grant, which I utilized. It provided £1,000 towards exploring a course or interest of the dancers’ choice. I enrolled in an accountancy course as a few dancers in the company were exploring this field. The course offered was the ICAEW's Certificate in Finance and Business. Despite failing my final accountancy exam the first time, I retook it two months later and passed.

Balancing professional dancing, performing, rehearsing, and studying required waking up early to find a quiet space and study for up to two hours before my day began. This challenging period taught me resilience and the value of hard work. It kindled my interest in governance, boards, and their function within charities and large arts organizations like my own company.

Photo by Bill Cooper

Can you guide me through your successful transition from coaching to marketing, and now leading the artistic and business operations at the London Vocational Ballet School?

Gavin: Certainly, my finance experience, which some could say is rather unique for a dancer, has proven helpful. The charity sector often needs people who can delve into accounts and ask the right questions about the figures. So, I started looking for a board position and took a course on trusteeship. I happened to meet a lady on holiday who was looking for trustees for her charity, and I ended up joining that board, which was my first trustee position. From there, I built up my governance portfolio. I now chair the Finance and HR subcommittee for a large non-profit organization called Yorkshire Dance, which runs programs across the UK and Europe engaging communities from young children right up to older adults.

While managing these responsibilities, I continued my side passions, such as choreography, coaching and teaching. One of the trustees from a board I interviewed for a few years later introduced me to two choreographers who needed a marketing manager for their production company, Matsena Productions. Although I didn't have much marketing experience, I decided to give it a shot.

In the first month, we redesigned their website, launched a brand identity, built a new logo, and set up all their social media profiles. That year, they had major commissions, including a main stage commission at Sadler's Wells in London for a production called Shades of Blue. This provided me with the opportunity to connect with the marketing teams of major organizations across England and Wales. We led a successful campaign for Shades of Blue, which sold out the main house at Sadler's Wells and received fantastic reviews.

That may have been what prompted me to start seriously considering my transition from dancing to a more administrative role. I was enjoying my work in marketing and governance and was ready to take on more responsibilities. I began applying for marketing and arts administration jobs, but after several rejections, I was ready to change my approach. A role came up at a charity and school I had been involved with at the board level previously. They were restructuring and planning to expand the school's facilities. The role was Director of Business Operations, which aligned with my experience and ambition. I applied, went through the recruitment process, and was offered the job. I found out that I got the job on the day of my last performance at Sadler's Wells. I was dancing a principal role that night, in a ballet I loved, and it all felt like the right time to move on. After months of applications and rejections, my transition seemed smooth from the outside, but it was the result of nine years of ‘hustle’ and ambition.

While some suggest dancers "die twice" - once at the end of their dancing careers - I perceive it differently. You might see it as being reborn.

Which skills from your time as a dancer have been most beneficial in your career transition?

Gavin: Throughout the transition, the most beneficial skill has been resilience. The journey was non-linear, challenging, and at times exhausting, especially when facing constant rejection. However, the resilience instilled in dancers from a young age is exceptional. In an educational setting, people often overlook the fact that we're not just training dancers: we're training individuals with a multiplicity of life skills. Skills like discipline, approach, creativity, curiosity, resilience, confidence, and teamwork come organically as part of vocational training in dance. These skills are integral to your life after you step away from performing or if you choose a different career path. They will help you thrive in any workplace.

The ability to engage with a team in a transparent and honest manner, and the ability to meet adversity with creative solutions are just a few examples. There are many skills we acquire during our training or careers that make us highly employable.

What is the most fulfilling aspect of your current role compared to your former career as a dancer?

Gavin: The most fulfilling part of my job is knowing that I'm part of facilitating an education, training, and experience that will stay with these young people for the rest of their lives. We are a ballet school, a dance school, and they also receive their academics with us, but we're so much more than that. The training they're receiving is far-reaching, and it's incredibly rewarding to know that I'm a part of that. I manage the budgets, the governance, and other administrative tasks and the overall direction artistically, which all contribute to the broader experience we can provide.

Having undergone lower school vocational training myself, I can honestly say it was fulfilling. It provided me with the skills I needed to obtain upper school training, then a job, and now a very different job. It helped me build a beautiful life, a nice circle of friends, and the ability to do charity work. Now, I'm part of passing that knowledge and experience on to the next generation. They, in turn, will pass it on to their successors. It's a cycle of giving back, of passing it on. I'm trying to ensure that these young people have an incredible experience, just as my lower school teachers and senior leaders did for me. It's incredibly rewarding. That's why I'm here.

Photo by Caroline Holden

What would you tell dancers who are apprehensive that they might lack the necessary skills for a career beyond dancing?

Gavin: I would encourage them not to be afraid to acknowledge their power. We all possess unique gifts within us. It's crucial to have the confidence and belief to tap into, and share, these gifts. Sometimes, acknowledging our abilities is easy, but it's more challenging to share them with others. That's the next step in the journey.

Dancers often tend to be humble and may feel they're not good enough. We have a habit of downplaying our achievements. Looking back, I wish I had stopped undervaluing myself as a professional sooner. I wish I had found the sense of self-belief earlier in my career that I discovered in my final year as a professional dancer. I'm not invalidating my journey; it was special and right for me. It led me to where I am today, of course. However, finding that confidence sooner rather than later truly is key.

What advice would you give to dancers considering a career change or about to start this new adventure?

Gavin: I would encourage dancers to jump in with both feet and not be scared. Be enthusiastic to explore and uncover the opportunities that lie ahead. Importantly, don't assume that you can't find a satisfying career outside of dance. It’s a big world out there!

While some suggest dancers "die twice" - once at the end of their dancing careers - I perceive it differently. You might see it as being reborn. After a rewarding stage career, which is an amazing profession, you gain valuable life experience from your training and performances. Now, it's your turn to share that experience. The world needs more people with heightened awareness of their environment, discipline, resilience, and creativity. So, step out and show the world your potential.

Top Image by George Liang

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